Director: Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Stars: Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke
Perhaps its fitting that Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s first film outside of Japan should concern artifice and the cinema itself. Following his Palme d’Or win in 2018 with Shoplifters, Kore-Eda relocates to France, and presents us a fractured family that is intrinsically connected to the movie business. Spinning lies to find some kind of truth.
He’s certainly attracted a dynamo cast. The great Catherine Deneuve plays Fabienne Dangeville, a famous French actress embarking on a supporting role in a new film that she openly badmouths. She has recently finished work on a memoir, one that plays fast and loose with the truth. “You can’t trust memory,” Fabienne tells her visiting daughter, screenwriter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), as the two of them spend a majority of their time sparring over familial trivialities. Lumir is joined on the trip by her husband. Hank (Ethan Hawke), an American TV actor whom Fabienne holds in open contempt. Being an American, Hank cannot speak French; a barrier that keeps him from being as insulted as he should be. Here we find another cushioning of the truth; through ignorance.
Kore-Eda may have crossed continents but his interest in the machinations of family remain firmly in place. The Truth finds him tipping his hat to a particular brand of European cinema that is not too dissimilar to his own acclaimed and nuanced work. His setting is decidedly middle-class, his drama is low-key, with the work capable of sneaking deep emotions up on you through the subterfuge of such mild stakes.
Deneuve is in her element, and brings much charm to a quite deliberately unlikable character, embodying the diva whose limelight has passed, but whose sense of self-importance remains smartly intact. Binoche’s presence and temperament conjures the spirit of her occasional collaborator Olivier Assayas. The Truth shares some of the sensibilities found in Summer Hours or, with its theme of performance, Clouds of Sils Maria. It isn’t a fierce, punchy or even exceptional work, but in its quiet politeness it finds a pleasing enough groove. Hawke, meanwhile, seems comfortable. Hank seems very much like Jesse from the Before Trilogy had TV stardom captured his imagination instead of writing.
Another key fore-bearer that comes to mind when considering The Truth is Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. Both films see an absentee mother and her daughter clashing over long held resentments, their disagreements unfurling under the roof of the family homestead. Kore-Eda’s plumbing of ancient history isn’t as barbed or wrought as Bergman’s, but one senses awareness in him of the connection. Filmmakers of his level are all cinephiles. The Truth seems like a very conscious act of appreciation. That this is his ‘European movie’ adds to that feeling all the more.
There’s a storied history of great Asian filmmakers coming to the West following some serious critical recognition, only to stumble and create lesser works than on their home turf. Park Chan-Wook might be the most notable of these in recent years (was Stoker that good…? The Handmaiden was certainly a barnstorming homecoming). Bong Joon-Ho’s American projects – while fine – had undeniably less bite than his work in South Korea (with Parasite acting as his all-conquering victory lap). Kore-Eda largely skirts this ‘western wobble’ by remaining firmly within art house precepts. The Truth is defiantly small, middle-class, destined for a limited audience who will appreciate it… and move on. It is one of his lesser works – especially of late – but that isn’t the same as saying it’s a stumble. It’s merely flimsier, but it is that way by design.
One senses Kore-Eda would likely have made this whether Shoplifters had been a breakout success or not.
When dealing with the machinations of movie-making, The Truth returns a few times to digital manipulation and green-screen work. Lies to tell the truth. The film at large seems to pose the supposition that, if memory is selective and fallible – and people more-so – perhaps the movies are the best documents of truth we have. Even when telling stories of outer space, they’re a fixed record of that telling. A document of human imagination, if you will. And how we use all manner of stories to truly see ourselves.